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6 Autism Myths Busted

6 Autism Myths Busted

Autism is one of the most talked about and controversial health topics today, with everyone from actress Jenny McCarthy to medical expert Sanjay Gupta, MD, offering their views. If you don’t know who or what to believe about autism, you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s start with a definition: Autism spectrum disorder encompasses several related brain disorders (once separately known as autism, Asperger's and similar conditions) that affect behavior, communication and social interaction. People with this disorder fall along the autism spectrum—meaning that while the symptoms they experience are related, such as difficulty communicating and impairments in behavioral functions, they vary from person to person. Those diagnosed with autism can range from “high-functioning” individuals who lead normal lives to those who need lifelong care.

Those are the undisputed facts, but there are also many common—and untrue—theories surrounding autism. “There is misinformation regarding the [cause], the prognosis, the increased prevalence as well as treatment,” says Sharecare expert Ronald Leaf, PhD, who has more than 30 years of experience researching and treating autism.

We’re here to separate myth from fact about autism.

Myth: Vaccines given in early childhood cause autism.
Fact: The link between autism and vaccinations continues to be hotly debated—yet multiple studies show no association between the two. In fact, when kids are not vaccinated on the schedule recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they’re at increased risk for several preventable diseases—including measles.

Myth: Autism doesn’t show up before age two or three.
Fact: Signs of autism can show up when a child is 18-months-old—or even sooner. “I have seen children as young as six months old who appear to have autism spectrum disorder,” says Dr. Leaf. “However, typically we wait until age two to provide a firm diagnosis.” If you have concerns about your baby or toddler, share them with your child’s pediatrician.

Myth: People with autism can’t express affection.
Fact: Many adults and kids with autism may not make eye contact or give hugs, but they do show affection in their own way. Treatment can help them learn ways to express their emotions. Dr. Leaf recommends applied behavior analysis (ABA), which uses teaching and behavioral support to help increase communication and improve social behaviors, as the most effective treatment for autism spectrum disorders. 

Myth: Autism is caused by bad parenting.
Fact: In the 1950s, University of Chicago professor Bruno Bettleheim promoted the "refrigerator mother" theory of autism: Cold, emotionally distant parenting inflicted emotional trauma on a child that led to autism. While a healthy and supportive environment is important for raising a child with autism, experts now believe the disorder is strictly biological. The way in which a child is raised does not increase risk of an autism spectrum disorder. 

Myth: Autism can be outgrown.
Fact: It’s a lifelong brain disorder, not a phase. However, the right treatment can help mitigate some symptoms, especially in children. Studies have shown that individual and intense treatment personalized to meet the patient’s needs has the greatest effect on improving social abilities. For those who are high functioning, treatment can enable them to lead productive lives. And without treatment? “Children get worse over time,” says Dr. Leaf.

Myth: Only people with low intelligence have autism.
Fact: People with autism have a wide range of intelligence levels. However, Dr. Leaf says that children with untreated autism often do poorly on IQ tests. His research found that weekly behavioral treatment over several years dramatically increased autistic children’s IQ levels.

Medically reviewed in May 2018.

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